Star Life's inspirations

October 14, 2013

No creative endeavour exists in a vacuum. From the first troglodyte painter mimicking the forms and tones of nature on his cave wall, to today’s indie game developers, the act of creation has always been inspired by something. In this post I will put on record our inspirations for our new game, Star Life.

Cave Story

Cave Story is an adventure platformer, probably the best we’ve played. There are elements of Star Life inspired by Cave Story, but its real legacy for us is the inspiration to return to indie games and start work on Star Life.

Pixel, Cave Story’s creator, was responsible for all the coding, art, music and level design in Cave Story. The resulting game is to Call of Duty what a novel is to a Hollywood blockbuster, it is the expression of one creative mind, and in this case it is a masterpiece. So much so that the game was faithfully rewritten for Nintendo’s 3DS. Surely this has to be the indie dream.

As well as inspiring indie developers like ourselves, the development of Cave Story can teach many practical lessons. Pixel chose his art, music and gameplay styles very carefully. His choice of a tiled engine with retro pixellated graphics allowed him to polish and perfect the art in the time he had available. Likewise the chip tune soundtrack not only complimented the pixellated graphic style, but was achievable on a limited budget. He didn’t hold back on the gameplay though. Cave Story gives the player an expansive world to explore and a great story, but most importantly, it has the best “feel” of any 2D platformer I have ever played. The movement is just right, the enemies are challenging without being frustrating, and the levels are so well designed you don’t notice that the engine is rudimentary compared to Cave Story’s competitors. The moral for a fledgling indie developer is to keep your engine and assets simple enough that you are able to polish the resulting game to a ridiculously high standard in the time you have available. Polish makes a game, not scope, complexity or polygon count. Leave that for Call of Duty.

Zelda eschewed the intricate fighting systems and complex lore that most fantasy games borrowed from the tabletop RPG universe. Zelda chose an arcade approach to gameplay, albeit still swinging a sword. Nevertheless, the backdrop to this button bashing action is a vibrant fantasy world packed with puzzles, charming characters and hundreds of intricate details that bring this world alive.

I’ve spent many happy hours playing abstract video games, for example I love Tetris and Bejeweled, but for me video games shine most brightly as art when they give the player a window into an alternate universe, just as a book or a film does. The unique challenge for video game designers is that the world must be interactive, not static as it is in a film or a book. It isn’t enough to show or tell the viewer or reader about your world, you must allow your player to learn about the world by interacting with it. For me the Zelda franchise has been the torch bearer for this category of games for 25 years now.

Is Link’s Awakening the best Zelda? I have no idea. Did I choose it because it is the first I played. Yes.

Lunar Lander

Ten years after Neil Armstrong parked NASA’s Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, Atari were offering punters the chance to repeat his feat with their coin operated Lunar Lander arcade machine. Sadly I’ve never played the original, but the mechanic has been mimiced by coders ever since, and I’ve yet to find a flash clone I don’t like (even Atari themselves got in on the act). There is a simple pleasure to picking the perfect angle and deceleration curve so that your Eagle kisses the simulated Lunar landscape with no more than a puff of virtual moon dust.

The tragedy with Lunar Lander is that no matter how skillfully you land your spaceship you can’t leave it. Star Life fixes this. In Star Life the galaxy takes the place of Zelda’s overworld, and you travel around it in your Lunar Lander inspired spaceship. The planets themselves are like Zelda’s dungeons and levels. Bring your spaceship to a soft landing on one of these planets, and you can jump out and explore.

Super Mario Galaxy

It should be no surprise that the best-selling video game franchise of all time has influenced our creation, in particular Super Mario Galaxy. Super Mario Galaxy’s beautiful graphics, intuitive but innovative, controls, and its vast explorable universe make it one of the highlights in a proud lineage of video games.

You may not think that every nerd’s favourite Italian plumber belongs in this list, except for one thing. Super Mario Galaxy’s levels are near-spherical with a gravitational field to match. In the resulting cerebral, perplexing and perspective-skewing gameplay, Up is down, Left is Up, Down is 3 minutes ago, and soon I feel like I’ve been watching Primer on repeat whilst spinning on an office chair. If you don’t own a Wii, fret not, you can fry your brain equally well asteroid hopping in Star Life.

Flat UI / Windows Metro

This is the only entry on the list which is not a game, nevetheless, the Flat UI design sensibility is a big part of Star Life. For two tecchie types embarking on a game the most intimidating aspect is not the engine, the sound or the marketing; the most intimidating aspect is the art.

Aware of our limitations, but intent on writing something both playable and beautiful we began to cast about for an design aesthetic that was attractive, but achievable by two artistically disadvantaged coders. I’ve seen it written that the Neon look in games was created by programmers who can’t draw. This may be a true statement, in fact we went that route with Boxel, but Neon is too strident and soulless to lend Star Life either the charm or the pathos it requires so we moved on.

The retro pixellated look has been an indie game cliché for some time, and for the most part I find it hideously ugly, so we discarded that almost immediately.

We based our graphical style on the “Flat UI” aesthetic made famous by Windows Phone 7. The simple bold style may be annoying Desktop Windows users right now, but requires only a limited level of technical skill to achieve, but when combined with abstract tiled patterns it can be beautiful. On top of that Flat UI reflects the bright and cheery atmosphere of Star Life, and it fits well with the new generation of mobile operating systems that Star Life is destined to run on.